With some professors grumbling over the University of California's expanding online presence, UC Berkeley is joining two of its top competitors to bring free college courses to the masses.
The university will offer two free online classes this fall as part of the edX collaboration, which also includes Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. UC Berkeley employees were told about the partnership Monday.
The edX venture is Berkeley's latest foray into the MOOC, or massive open online course, arena. The school already offers classes with Coursera, another free program that also includes Stanford, Princeton and the University of Michigan. Together the two ventures have some 950,000 students.
Some educators have complained that free online classes could hurt UC Berkeley's reputation. Participants are working hard to keep that from happening, said Armando Fox, a UC Berkeley computer science professor who has helped teach a Coursera class and will do the same with edX.
"We would not have agreed to do an online course if we did not think we could maintain that standard of quality," he said. More than 100,000 students from around the world have enrolled in his Coursera classes, he said.
The edX experiment comes as the 10-campus UC system works to expand its own online program. The university recently began offering a handful of credit classes online to UC students and will bring non-UC students into the mix this year at up to
Faculty leaders have cautioned the university against moving too quickly with the online courses. The UC Academic Senate has said it worries about the quality and finances of the UC Online project.
In contrast, some of those most concerned about UC's plans say they support free projects like Coursera and edX.
"I'm not at all opposed to the open-sourced courses," said Wendy Brown, a UC Berkeley political-science professor who has criticized the university's approach to online education. "The experiments need to happen to develop these technologies."
The different models -- UC's own versus edX and Coursera -- provide disparate benefits to students.
UC's online program is meant to expand the reach of UC classes, and students gain college credits for completing the courses. The stakes, professors say, are higher when the UC brand on a class is so prominent.
But Coursera and edX offer only certificates, so the risk to an individual school is not as high. The programs offer free education to people who might otherwise be shut out from elite universities, said John Wilton, a UC Berkeley vice chancellor who has helped develop the school's online partnerships.
"There's a public-good component to this, which I think is very appealing to the universities involved," Wilton said. Universities have an obligation to improve online education, he said. "It's not like we can not do this. We have to do this."
The free courses do have detractors, however. UC campuses should concentrate more on their own students, particularly in the midst of a budget crisis, before leaping into such partnerships, said Christopher Edley, the UC Berkeley law dean who has helped guide the university system's online development.
"I worry that jumping into what our private peer institutions are doing feels a little like me-tooism rather than a vision," he said. "Our mission has to do more with figuring out how to serve the thousands of California students who won't fit on a UC campus.
"It risks being a distraction from the somewhat urgent need to figure this stuff out."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488. Follow him at Twitter.com/MattKrupnick.